Ninth Grade Man serves as a nice complement to Growing Up. In fact, this feels almost like the second half of an opener than a separate episode.
The two are structurally similar: Both are a series of loosely connected threads rather than an overrarching narrative, though Ninth Grade Man at least has the first day of school as its backbone.
The similarities continue on the thematic front: Both show Kevin’s world taking a turn for the darker. His world is becoming more alienating than ever, full of temptation and deception. Where Growing Up focused on the strife in Kevin’s family and personal life, Ninth Grade Man depicts it in his social and school life.
Kevin’s romance with Winnie is even more at the front of Kevin’s mind than it was last episode, and its security is cast in ever greater doubt. Not only are the two at different schools, but a brand new babe named Madeleine has caught Kevin’s eye.
The Wonder Years has trouble writing well-developed teenage females. Karen has rarely had as much to do as either of her brothers. Winnie has had only a few episodes that have allowed her to be more than a romantic interest. Thus, it’s no surprise that Madeleine does little more than smile and look pretty.
This time, though, it didn’t really bother me. Madeleine is an obvious plot tool rather than a character. She’s a temptress. She’s a pretty flirter who showers Kevin with unearned affection. Here, she distracts Kevin from his hourly thoughts of Winnie, and his commitment to her in general. If she wasn’t so obviously playing an archetypal role as a temptress, Madeleine would present a narrative problem. The way she throws herself at Kevin is pretty unconvincing. Still, I enjoyed watching Fred Savage show some chemistry with another actress.
The conclusion to Kevin’s first day provides only a little bit of relief. He and Winnie cozy up and connect for a brief moment before Madeleine again catches Kevin’s eye (only hours after she planted a peck on him).
Beyond Madeleine appearing in those final moments, the final scene gives us some ominous warnings about Kevin and Winnie’s relationship. For the second time in two episodes, Ninth Grade Man shows Kevin’s romance with Winnie as shallow. He again declines to really open himself up to Winnie. He chooses to keep his response to a simple (and inaccurate) “good” to Winnie’s inquiry about how his day went, and she has little more to share than “okay.”
The episode also ends with a big red flag: Winnie’s remark “You don’t know how hard it is to be the new girl” and its implications. Given the way that Madeleine, a new girl herself, developed chemistry with Kevin so rapidly hints that perhaps Winnie found herself in a similar place to Madeleine — a beautiful girl lost and lonely in a strange new school, just waiting for some boy to reach out to her.
In that way, Madeleine is a parallel to Winnie as much as she is the antagonist. On the surface, Winnie is the reliable “girl next door” where Madeleine is the temptress, and they’re two points of a new love triangle for Kevin: one good and wholesome, the other bad and seductive. But the truth is definitely a bit more complicated than that.
The third major female in Kevin’s life throughout Ninth Grade Man is Becky Slater. I’ve done little in the past to hide my disappointment with Becky Slater’s character arc. She started the second season as a normal and likable girl caught in the crossfire between Kevin and Winnie. For a couple of episodes, she felt like a real character.
Before long, though, she turned into someone with a psychotic temper who served primarily to muck up Kevin’s plans and inject artificial conflict into the show. This episode was no exception. Still, I enjoyed Becky’s screentime because I really like Crystal McKellar.Why wasn’t this sister chosen to play Winnie? Danica might be a bit prettier, but Crystal has far more screen presence and expressive range than Winnie Cooper does.
There are a few other bits that serve either as throwaway bits of conflict or perhaps groundwork for future episodes. Kevin’s encounter in shop class, while completely unrealistic, was one of the more amusing moments of the episode (“you gotta arm wrestle me for it!”).
Mr. Cutlip as a guidance counselor, on the other hand, puts an unfunny character in an unfunny situation. I’ve never been much of a Cutlip fan, and I don’t really like how he’s used here. He escalates Kevin’s discomfort in a situation where he should feel welcome.
Cutlip’s scene does set up one of my favorite scenes of the episode, though. Kevin, for no clear reason, encounters Becky Slater and starts a race with her. I see this race as a symbol of Kevin facing adversity in ninth grade: Though he may ultimately comes out the victor, there will probably be a few unexpected gut punches (here, from Becky Slater) along the way. At the end of it, he may be keeled over, feeling abandoned, but he’ll have survived. He’ll also experience some nice and surprising moments, like the sweet little kiss Madeleine gives him as a thank you for the day.
That scene also summarizes the first two episodes of the fourth season: Thematically, it’s rich and full of ambiguity with plenty of possible interpretations. Narratively, it’s a bit nonsensical and scattershot.
A few other thoughts:
- This is a great Paul episode on the fringes. He gets lots of great comedy, my favorite of which was his reversal on chemistry. Both his original apprehension and his eventual appreciation (“The wonder of water, the mystery of fire!”) are hilarious.
- Tony Barbella appears, and his bullying is just over the top enough to be entertaining while still playing a believable role in the show’s conflict.
- The best line of the episode: Becky Slater’s “I hate men”
- As usual, the narration has lots of cheese but a few killer lines: “When you’re fourteen, you can’t always put words to life,” for example.